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Science

Warming Up to Climate Change

By Sean Cavanagh — June 09, 2008 2 min read

Florida’s new state science standards break new ground by including their first-ever reference to a major scientific topic.

And no, in this case I’m not talking about evolution, which got all the attention when the standards were approved back in February.

The 96-page document, in addition to having references to the previously absent e-word, also spells out that Florida’s students should understand the basic science behind climate change.

High school students should “discuss the large-scale environmental impacts resulting from human activity, including waste spills, oil spills, runoff, greenhouse gases, ozone depletion, and surface and groundwater pollution,” it says.

On its own, the place of climate change in any science standard hardly seems unusual, given the growing concern about the issue among scientists and the public. Congress is considering a “cap-and-trade” bill aimed at curbing the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change, sponsored by Sens. John W. Warner, R-Va., and Joe Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut.

But to date, climate change has been largely ignored in state standards, which shape the content of state tests, textbooks, and instruction.

This void almost certainly isn’t the result of any political controversy over the issue—such as the extent to which pollution from human industrial activities are causing global warming. It has more to do with the slow cycle for revising state academic standards.

States typically overhaul those documents every five to 10 years—or once in 12 years, as was the case in Florida. (Read the new version of Florida’s standards here.

) Scientists’ understanding of climate change has increased greatly in that time. So has the public’s grasp of the issue, as a a result of media coverage, the attention paid to Al Gore’s documentary on the topic, and other factors.

Florida officials asked for public comments in drafting their standards last year—and they were flooded with thousands of them, many of them related to evolution. The state board of education ultimately voted to include fairly extensive language on that theory in the document. (See my story on the evolution debate here.)

Public comments on the climate-change language were largely positive, according to Paul Ruscher, an associate professor of meteorology at Florida State University, who served on a committee that drafted the standards. The language related to “human activity” and “greenhouse gases” received the most criticism, he told me.

The objections were mostly, “‘Well, I’m not teaching Al Gore’s movie,’” Ruscher recalled. “Well, we weren’t recommending that.”

Ruscher, who specializes in coastal weather patterns, said the document’s drafters felt strongly about including climate change, given public interest in the topic, as well as scientific consensus about it.

For instance, a report released last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that evidence of climate change is “unequivocal,” and that there is a “very high confidence” among scientists that humans are contributing to it. (Read a summary of the report here.

)

Florida officials also viewed the topic as particularly relevant, given concerns in their state about rising sea levels and stronger storms, and their impact on businesses and residents, Ruscher said. Many science teachers, he added, were asking for more guidance in addressing climate change, as well as on broader weather and climate topics.

“We tried to write language in these standards that was politically neutral,” he said, “but scientifically objective.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.